Kwakiutl in Patterns of Culture

The Kwakiutl

This was the comment page for “The Northwest Coast of America” (chapter 6) in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture for Cultural Anthropology 2016. As with the previous chapter on Dobu, we thought about if “culture” is the best explanation. After all, where did they get all those blankets for potlatch?

Kwakiutl Longhouse image credit to Potlatch Season in Technology News. Definitely a different perspective on Boas and Benedict!

Rough notes below and Disqus comments follow.

The Kwakiutl!!!!!!!

Northwest Coast
Sea – settled villages without agriculture
Abundant salmon
Art, woodworking
Franz Boas
Dionysian (175)
Triumph & Suicide
Uninhibited indulgence, delusions of grandeur (219-220)
Megalomaniac Paranoid (222)

Were the Kwakiutl cannibals? (177-178)


Were the Dobuans cannibals?

“A couple of generations ago, before white intervention, they were cannibals” (Benedict:131)

Were the ancient Pueblos cannibals?

Recent analyses of prehistoric multiple inhumation in Anasazi sites in the American Southwest have argued that cannibalism best explains evidence of defleshing, cutting, and bone breakage. The validity of this explanation is questioned in a review of ethnohistoric and ethnographic literature on Pueblo witchcraft and witch execution. A model based on Puebloan procedures for witch destruction is offered which accounts for osteological patterning in the archaeological record . . . (Darling 1998)

Was anyone a cannibal?

Yes, but accounts of cannibals have often been misinterpreted or exaggerated. Obeyesekere’s Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seasargues that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why were Europeans so obsessed?

Avramescu’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism traces it to birth of idea of European modernity, separating self from other, idea of Natural Law, and Greek texts.
But review by Obeyesekere says Avramescu misses some crucial points about ongoing fascination, not just an intellectual history (as is perhaps evident in the Disqus comment thread below as well as the Amazon reviews of Avramescu compared to Obeyesekere).

Benedict’s examples

Pueblos as “Apollonian,” evidence from Bunzel, Benedict’s interviews. Stake in portrayal as sober businessmen?
Dobu as “Paranoid,” evidence from Reo Fortune. Stake in portrayal as fearsome?
Kwakiutl as “Megalomaniac Paranoid,” evidence from Boas. Potlatch exacerbated by fur trade?

Does Benedict reify her examples?

“consider an abstract concept to be real” (WordNet)
“to regard something abstract as if it were a concrete material thing” (Wiktionary)
Reification: concept –> thing
Culture, for Boas and first part of Benedict:
Attribute of humanity
The way we become human, a process
Later in Benedict’s introduction, Culture –> cultures (46, 50)
From the “cultural island” (129) of the Pueblos to the real island of Dobu

How do you know a reification when you see one?

Bounding: contained, isolated
“That’s their culture” or “in their culture”
When culture starts doing things
One-word characterizations
Unchanging, static
Internally homogeneous

So what?

Blinds us to inequality, within and between societies
Blinds us to history and change
Culture becomes deterministic
Reproduces what culture was meant to argue against:
Culture easily becomes hierarchical
Culture becomes euphemism for race

For a contemporary example see North Dakota Access Pipeline Protests Spark Historic Declaration (2016) in Sapiens.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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